1 Peter 1:17-23
“Living as Strangers in Reverent Fear”
Post-Easter Series: “Feed My Sheep”
Earlier this year, The New York Times ran a story titled, “How to Be an Expatriate in 2020.” It was a story that focused on a middle-aged couple, Chuck and Kirsten Burgess, who decided one day to leave behind their two comfortable homes, one in Manhattan and the other in the Hamptons, along with their good careers, in order to move abroad to an entirely different country, where they owned nothing, knew no one, and had no real capacity for speaking any language other than their native English. And so they sold off everything, picked up the little they had left over, and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Barcelona, Spain. What really got my attention in the article was, of course, their reasoning. According to the couple, they transitioned to an expatriate life “because they yearned for something more – not something more in the sense of material things, but in the satisfaction derived from new adventures in new lands.” And as the article went on to feature other Americans who had come to the same decision as the Burgesses, it concluded with this observation on the “expat” life: “This is not a life for those who are running away; it’s instead a life for those who running toward something (“How to Be an Expatriate in 2020,” The New York Times, 2/21/20).
I am such a provincial soul that I don’t know that I could ever muster enough courage to venture out from my familiar surroundings for such an extended period of time. Yes, I enjoy traveling to other places as much as the next person, but after a while, I’m always ready to return home. I think most persons feel the same way; don’t you? We get locked in to a certain way of life, where everything just seems second-nature, and we stay perfectly content with our little lives.
But what if in the process of what we tell ourselves is true contentment we miss out on the possibility of our little lives becoming something so much more?
That’s a question answered by this passage that is before us this morning from the book of 1 Peter. 1 Peter, attributed to the famous disciple, Simon Peter, was a letter of inspired instruction offered to new Christians who had come to faith in Jesus Christ out of a pagan culture steeped in Roman-style patronage and partiality. They had literally been yanked by their faith in the Risen Jesus out of one culture and world system into a decidedly different one, a culture and world system based on heavenly values instead of earthly ones.
Many of the new Christians Peter was addressing had probably been brought to the cities in the region of Asia Minor as slaves. A number of them had most likely experienced some form of ransom from their slavery so that their freedom had been purchased by means of a certain sum of money. But even then these former slaves, now having been ransomed, had remained where they had been brought from their original homes. They had been, in effect, orphaned in a distant region, far from their native country and culture and its familiar traditions. They were now living in a place where they were considered by the majority population to be outsiders, oddballs, interlopers, and aliens.
It is one thing, you see, to move to Barcelona or Timbuktu by your own free will and to plunge yourself into a strange culture where you choose to assimilate and adjust to everything around you. It’s quite another thing to remain in Birmingham and be thrust into a new frame of mind where what moves you and drives you is something far, far different from what moves and drives everyone around you, which is essentially what trusting in Jesus ultimately does. Trusting in Jesus marks you as a different person, as someone who’s no longer into the things that most charm the world around you – the rush to be attractive and affluent, to be prominent and powerful – so that you live, as it were, an edge-of-society type of existence for Jesus’ sake.
Deep down inside of us, we know this is the expectation for all believers, to be distinct and different wherever God has called us to be. And yet it is so hard for us not to fall prey to the temptation to fit in with the prevailing culture because of the messages we get bombarded with day in and day out, messages that seek to form and shape us into being the same kind of “me-first,” “get to the head of the line,” “survival of the fittest” type of folk who live for themselves and don’t give a flying flip about anyone else.
So, how do we do that? How do we find the strength that is necessary to turn a deaf ear to these pernicious messages that are playing all around us in the world and follow instead the counsel of the Holy Spirit?
Peter gives us the answer in verse 17. “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially (that is to say, without any thought of patronage or personal gain), live out your time as strangers here in reverent fear.”
I don’t know about you, but most of the time I hear the word “fear” used in a sentence, I hear it as a bad thing. I look at the number of sermons and Bible studies I’ve done on fear and I would imagine over 90% of them have taken the approach that fear is something we are to do our best to avoid. But here, Peter is telling us that fear, or at least the right kind of fear, may well be the key to our being able to reject the things of this world that can ultimately doom our souls so that we might be in a position to live as people “whose faith and hope are in God.”
“Live out your time as strangers here,” says Peter, “in reverent fear.” That modifier “reverent” makes all the difference in the world; does it not? It completely changes our understanding of what Peter is recommending, because it moves our understanding of fear from being a cowering, wimpish approach to this life to one that is grounded in a deep appreciation for how this world is in God’s hands and He is moving it in the power of Jesus’ resurrection toward a glorious fulfillment that exceeds our wildest hopes and dreams. And it is also an important reminder of how if we have anything to worry about, it’s that we never allow our fear of the world’s rejection (because we never fully fit in) to become greater than our fear of God’s so that we wind up missing out on the possibilities of the everlasting life the resurrection of Christ has made possible both for today and forevermore.
Might you do that this morning? Might you take whatever precautions are necessary to make sure that you do not let your fear of being rejected by the world take precedence over your fear of missing out on God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord? Might you fill that void that may exist in your soul not by trying to fill it with more of what the world offers but by filling it with the power and the purpose that God unleashed into this world on that bright and shining morning when Jesus got up out of the grave? Might you embrace the full and abundant life God makes available to all who trust in Jesus because it’s not so much that they’re running away from something with their devotion that relinquishes all but because they are running to something, or rather they are running to Someone?
I think back to John’s account of the Easter story, where John gives attention to Mary Magdalene as one of the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint what they thought would have been the dead body of Jesus. But when Mary arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone that had sealed the tomb’s entrance had been rolled away, she ran to find Peter and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, to tell them that someone had taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb and she didn’t know where they had put him. So, what did Peter and John decide to do? They ran to find Jesus.
It was John who arrived first. He looked into the tomb, saw that it was empty, but did not go in. But when Peter arrived, he went in and saw the same thing – the strips of linen, the burial cloth, but no dead Jesus. There is no doubt in my mind that what Peter must have felt, what must have compelled him to enter in, was nothing less than reverent fear. A new day had dawned. A new reality had emerged. A new world had been brought into existence. And Peter was able to find the courage to leave everything he had ever known behind in order to claim it.
This morning, why not do the same? Why not pray to God for the courage to be able to leave behind all of the futility and emptiness that characterize so much of too many people’s everyday life for the fulness and the purpose of the new life God makes possible for those who trust their way to the Risen Jesus? What you give up will pale in comparison to what you will gain – a new home and a new life and a new destiny that are so rich and so full that you will never want to go back to the old ways ever again. It’s not so much as you’re running away from the old as much as it is that you’re running toward all that Jesus makes new.